Scientists have discovered another of the key ingredients needed to support life on Saturn’s ocean moon Enceladus.
Using data gathered from the ill-fated Cassini spacecraft, researchers found complex organic molecules being ejected out into space through vast water vents.
Complex organic molecules comprising hundreds of atoms are extremely rare and have so far only been found on a few meteorites and Earth.
Enceladus is essentially a vast ocean of water surrounded by a huge layer of ice. It’s believed that powerful hydrothermal vents mix up the material found in the moon’s porous core with the water that makes up its vast ocean.
This material is then ejected out into space in the form of vast plumes of water vapour and ice granules.
The sight is quite spectacular, and it was into one of these plumes that NASA’s scientists were able to send Cassini to examine their composition.
For life to flourish it requires four key ingredients (as far as we know): Liquid water, a source of energy, a group of chemicals and organics.
The only two ingredients that are now missing from Enceladus are phosphorus and sulphur.
One of the team leaders behind the discovery, Frank Postberg of the University of Heidelberg, Germany, believes that these organic materials are almost certainly coming from hydrothermal vents similar to those we see on the surface of our own oceans.
Unfortunately the next step in this process is rather difficult. Cassini reached the end of its lifespan last year ending with its destruction as it plummeted towards the surface of Saturn.
There are no other spacecraft currently in the area nor are there any current missions planned. Instead scientists will have to continue to use the data they have from Cassini or wait until a dedicated spacecraft can be sent to Enceladus with the task of finding extraterrestrial life.